One of my favourite British horror films is called “The Witchfinder General”. It was made in 1968 & starred Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, the eponymous villain. It is a folk horror trip to a 17th century East England in the grip of civil war & hysteria. While historically inaccurate it does provide a sense of the witch craze that engulfed the eastern counties in the mid 17th century. This blog will shed a little more light on what actually happened.
The real Matthew Hopkins was born in 1620 & died most likely on August 11th 1647 of tuberculosis aged 27. Histories which say that he was lynched or swum are likely to be more hopeful than accurate.
He proclaimed himself ‘Witchfinder General’ in a pamphlet published in May of 1647, the year of his death, titled ‘The Discovery of Witches: in answer to several queries lately delivered to Judges of Assize for the county of Norfolk”
The title ‘Witchfinder General’ was not bestowed upon him; it was self appointed.
Hopkins’ witch-finding career began in March 1644, when he was 24 years old, and lasted until his retirement & death in 1647.
Matthew Hopkins & his associate John Stearne are believed to have been responsible for the deaths of 300 women between the years 1644 and 1646.It has been estimated that all of the English witch trials between the early 15th and late 18th centuries resulted in fewer than 500 executions for witchcraft.
Therefore, presuming the number executed as a result of “investigations” by Hopkins and his colleague John Stearne is at the lower end of the various estimates, their efforts accounted for about 60 per cent of the total; in their short crusade Hopkins and Stearne sent to the gallows more people than all the other witch-hunters in England of the previous 160 years.
Very little is known of Matthew Hopkins before 1644, and there are no surviving contemporary documents concerning him or his family.
He was born in Great Wenham, Suffolk and was the fourth son of six children.
His father, James Hopkins, was a Puritan clergyman and vicar of St John’s of Great Wenham, in Suffolk.
In the early 1640s Hopkins moved to Manningtree, Essex, a town on the River Stour, about 10 miles (16 km) from Wenham. According to tradition Hopkins used his recently acquired inheritance of a hundred marks to establish himself as a gentleman and to buy the Thorn Inn in Mistley. From the way that he presented evidence in trials, Hopkins is commonly thought to have been trained as a lawyer, but there is scant evidence to suggest this was the case.
Following the Lancaster Witch Trial of 1634, William Harvey, physician to King Charles I of England, had been ordered to examine the four women accused, and from this there came a requirement to have material proof of being a witch.
The aim of Hopkins and John Stearne was not necessarily to prove any of the accused had committed acts of maleficium, magical acts intended to cause harm or death to persons or property, but the fact they had made a covenant with the Devil.
This is the difference between Hopkins’ approach & that of the JP who investigated the Pendle Witches in 1612. In 1612 the aim was to prove maleficium, causing harm by witchcraft. Hopkins’ aim was to prove a covenant with the Devil.
By making covenant with the Devil, witches became heretics to Christianity, which became the greatest of their crimes and sins.
Within continental and Roman Law witchcraft was crimen exceptum: a crime so foul that all normal legal procedures were superseded. Because the Devil was not going to “confess”, it was necessary to gain a confession from the human involved.
Methods of investigation
Matthew Hopkins’ methods of investigating witchcraft heavily drew inspiration from the Daemonologie of King James which was directly cited in Hopkins’ pamphlet, ‘The Discovery of Witches.’
Although torture was unlawful in England, Hopkins often used techniques such as sleep deprivation to extract confessions from his victims. Often the accused would be “watched” for days on end to see if imps or familiars would appear to come & suckle on their blood. It seems to be a common thread that when someone had been “watched” for a few days they were very much more willing to confess.
On occasion the accused would be “walked”, forcibly exercised to the point of exhaustion to encourage confession.
Another of his methods was the swimming test, based on the idea that as witches had renounced their baptism, water would reject them. Suspects were tied and thrown into water: all those who “swam” (floated) were considered to be witches. Those who sank & drowned were innocent.
Hopkins was warned against the use of “swimming” without receiving the victim’s permission first.
The problem with ordeal by water was that the test was regarded as a superstition: by law it was an assault to swim a witch & if he or she drowned it was murder.
However from the early 17th century to the mid 17th century the object of the witch trial changed from proving maleficium to proving a pact with the Devil & the swimming test became more widespread.
For example in the best selling legal handbook of the day, Dalton’s Counterey Justice, magistrates were advised “not alwaies to expect direct evidence (from witches), seeing all their works are the works of darknesse”
Hopkins and his assistants also looked for the Devil’s mark. This was a mark that all witches or sorcerers were supposed to possess that was said to be dead to all feeling and would not bleed – although in reality it was usually a mole, birthmark or an extra nipple or breast.
If the suspected witch had no such visible marks, invisible ones could be discovered by pricking, the witch finder therefore employed “witch prickers” to prick the accused with knives and special needles, looking for such marks, & places where the accused would feel no pain, normally after the suspect had been shaved of all body hair.
It was believed that the witch’s familiar, an animal such as a cat or dog, or mole or insect or even a child would drink the witch’s blood from a “witches teat”, as a baby drinks milk from the nipple. Local women would be employed to search the accused female witches & men would search the men.
One belief was that familiars suckled the witch to remind him or her of their fealty to the devil, a dark parallel to holy communion.
Sometimes the familiar would suckle blood & in exchange would perform acts of harm, for example killing off livestock belonging to those the witch bore a grudge to.
When you read through the reports of the watchers’ findings it was common for the “Witches teat” to be found in, on or around the private parts of the accused. For such pure souls, the Puritans seemed to be rather obsessed with private parts.
From reading the confessions of the witches it is striking how similar their confessions are. Often the ladies are seduced by the devil & repeatedly take him into their beds.
They will have ‘familiars’, spirit animals which will do their bidding which is invariably to the ill of their neighbours. The familiars will kill livestock or neighbours children or the neighbours themselves or make people ill.
Never is it recorded that the familiars better the circumstances of the witch only worsen the circumstances of his or her ‘enemies’.
The similarities between the many confessions is so great you can’t help but think that the words have been put into their mouths by the inquisitor.
The witch-fever that gripped East Anglia for around 14 months between 1645 & 1646 happened at a historic & tumultuous time in English history.
England was in the midst of a bloody civil war between the forces of King Charles I & the forces of Parliament. The country was in chaos, the normal workings of the state were not functioning. Circuit courts were not running normally & justice was being administered in a disjointed way at a local level.
Before the war had started the eastern counties were solidly Puritan, rabidly anti-Catholic & ever vigilant for heresies. As the war progressed & times grew harder fear & suspicion of neighbours mounted & scores were settled by accusations of witchcraft.
Matthew Hopkins & his associates were adept at turning local gossip & innuendo into formal accusations of witchcraft.
In the previous century Essex had seen more witchtrials than the rest of England.
The towns & villages of the Eastern Association had lost most of their able men who were off fighting in the war. The farms were not being worked, crops were rotting in the fields without sufficient folk to harvest them. The weather was unseasonably bad.
The poor were dirt poor & the folk whom they normally relied upon for charity & alms were stretched by the straightened circumstances of the war & not so able to give. Resentments grew. Many of those accused of witchcraft were from the beggar class or were old widows who took alms from the parishes but did not give alms. (The local church would collect alms money from the parishioners & dole it out to the poor.)
Add to this the widespread Calvinist belief in the elect, the idea that it is a predestined choice of God who will go to heaven & who is damned to hell. It was the idea that some folk are born to sin & some are born to be pure. Some folk are born to be heretics & some are born to be doctrinally pure. Some folk are born to be witches & some folk are born to be witch finders. It was a time of real fanaticism. Ignorance & dogmatic belief in the scripture went hand in hand with genuine belief in the supernatural.
Many folk genuinely believed that it was the end times: signs & portents & omens were widely reported in pamphlets.
“Have there not been strange Comets seen in the air, prodigies, sights on the seas, marvellous tempests & storms on the land? Have not nature altered her course so much that woman framed of pure flesh & blood bringeth forth ugly & deformed monsters?”
On the 21st May 1646 a meteorite fell in a cornfield in Swaffham, Cambridgeshire, setting it ablaze. Hailstones the size of pigeons eggs fell from the sky. Hysterics said it was judgement day. On the same day in Newmarket, Suffolk, a vision of three men fighting in the sky was seen suggesting war in the 3 kingdoms of England, Scotland & Ireland.
The war between the Puritan Roundheads & the Royalists (possibly in league with the Antichrist Pope) was interpreted widely as a war between Christ & the Devil. The civil war was punishment for the nation’s sins.
The witch-hunts undertaken by Hopkins & Stearne mainly took place in the counties of Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, and also beyond East Anglia in the counties of Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire. This is a large area of England. A lot of ground was covered.
At times Hopkins & Stearne worked together, at other times they worked independently.
They hunted for witches throughout the area of strongest Puritan and Parliamentarian influences which formed the powerful and influential Eastern Association from 1644 to 1647, centred on Essex.
In times of peace witch trials would take place at county assizes, the accused would be tried by juries of strangers directed by professional judges. At this time of the civil war the assize system in East Anglia collapsed. It was this judicial vacuum that Matthew Hopkins filled with a massive witch hunt.
Both Hopkins and Stearne would have required some form of letters of safe conduct to be able to travel throughout the counties.
In fact they were often invited to towns & villages in their witchhunt.
According to his book The Discovery of Witches, Hopkins began his career as a witch-finder after he overheard various women discussing their meetings with the Devil in March 1644 in Manningtree.
In fact, the first accusations were made by Stearne and Hopkins was appointed as his assistant. Twenty-three women were accused of witchcraft & tried at Chelmsford in 1645. With the English Civil War under way, this trial was conducted not by justices of assize, but by justices of the peace presided over by the Earl of Warwick.
Four died in prison and nineteen were convicted and hanged. During this period, excepting Middlesex and chartered towns, no records show any person charged of witchcraft being sentenced to death other than by the judges of the assizes.
The Chelmsford witch trial made Matthew Hopkins’ & John Stearnes’ names as witchfinders. They claimed that they had an official commission from Parliament to uncover & prosecute witches & enthusiastically travelled from town to village to execute their commission.
Hopkins and Stearne, accompanied by the women who performed the pricking, watching & searching were soon travelling over eastern England, in demand from the puritan townsfolk eager to root out evil in their midst.
Together with their female assistants, they were well paid for their work, and it is possible that money was a motivation for Hopkins.
Hopkins states in his pamphlet ‘A Discovery Of Witchcraft’ that “his fees were to maintain his company with three horses”, and that he took “twenty shillings a town”.
The records at Stowmarket show their costs to the town to have been £28 & 3pence plus his travelling expenses (the usual daily wage at the time was sixpence). He used his pretended commission from Parliament to persuade the local community to levy a special tax
In Suffolk Hopkins discovered that the church minister of Brandeston, John Lowes an old man of seventy ‘was naught but a foul witch’. It appears that Lowes had been a quarrelsome old man and was sorely disliked by many in his parish. At first he stoutly denied his guilt, but a confession was gained when he was subjected to Hopkins’s most approved methods by teams of his watchers who, “kept him awake several nights together while running him backwards and forwards about his cell until out of breath. After a brief rest, they then ran him again. And thus they did for several days and nights together, till he was weary of his life and scarce sensible of what he said or did”.
It was in this state of mind that Lowes finally confessed, “he had covenanted with the devil, suckled familiars (Tom, Flo, Bess and Mary) for five years, and had bewitched cattle. He had also caused a ship to sink off Harwich, on a calm sea, with the loss of fourteen lives”. A later pamphlet by Stearne states that Lowes “was joyfull to see what power his imps had”. Lowes later retracted his confession, but this didn’t save him, and since he was not allowed a clergyman to read the burial service for him, he recited it himself on his way to the scaffold at Bury St Edmunds on the 27th August 1645.
As well documented as the infamous trial at Bury St. Edmond is, it is also perhaps, the best illustration of just how the prejudice and hysteria against witches during those times, affected even the high courts and justices of the land. No record or suggestion was ever made to check whether a ship had floundered off Harwich.
Within a space of a few months Hopkins & Stearne had 200 alleged witches in jails awaiting trial. This was a problem as civil war was ranging & Parliament wanted the jails as empty as possible.
After the Bury St. Edmond witch trials, people began to question the alleged commission from Parliament.
The Moderate Intelligencer, a parliamentary paper published during the English Civil War, in an editorial of 4–11 September 1645 expressed unease with the affairs in Bury.
A special judicial commission was formed, the “Commission of Oyer and Terminer”. Its task was to deal specifically with the backlog of witchcraft trials in eastern England, and Hopkins was ordered to stop his Swimming activities.
Witch trials now began in earnest in and such was the state of witchcraft hysteria, in quick succession another 18 were tried and hanged in the Eastern Association. The sessions however were quickly abandoned as the Royalist forces of the rebellion approached Bedford and Cambridge. When eventually they started again, another fifty witches were executed.
His career as the Witch-Finder General firmly established, Hopkins together with his faithful band of assistants, traveled at break-neck speed urging on trials with fatal rapidity. By the 26th of July 1646 he was in Norfolk were another twenty witches met their fate.
In September he was in Yarmouth by special demand of the authorities. He was recalled there again in December, but who knows how many died. He also visited Ipswich and shortly after Aldeburgh before moving on to Stowmarket.
Along the way he also stopped at King’s Lynn and many other small towns and villages, but wherever they went fear and apprehension followed. In some respects you could say that Matthew Hopkins was a “Fingerman” an informer paid by the authorities to commit perjury.
However time was running out for Hopkins, as he overextended himself in greed and zeal. Toward the end of 1946, the tide began to turn against him. At a time when most people feared him, criticism was launched against him by the courageous efforts of an old country parson, “John Gaule” the Vicar of Great Staughton in Huntingdonshire.
Hearing that Hopkins was preparing to visit his part of the country, Gaule preached openly against him from the pulpit and started collecting evidence of his excessive methods and use of torture.
Gaule published his findings and his condemnation of Hopkins in a book called “Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcraft” (London, 1646). The book was well written and convincing, and public opinion was aroused against the abuses it exposed:
“Every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furrowed brow, a hairy lip, a robber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice or scolding tongue, having a rugged coat on her back, a skull cap on her head, a spindle in her hand & a dog or cat by her side, is not only suspect but pronounced for a witch”
Hopkins prudently avoided visiting Great Staughton.
By the end of 1646 as his credibility and activities petered out
It was around this time that the Assizes started to run again & this was the end for the witchfinders.
In Norfolk both Hopkins and Stearne were questioned by justices of the assizes, about the torturing and fees. Hopkins was asked if methods of investigation did not make the finders themselves witches, and if with all his knowledge did he not also have a secret, or had used “unlawful courses of torture”. It was rumoured that Matthew Hopkins had ‘The Devils Book’, a directory of all the witches in England.
In early 1647 Matthew Hopkins parted company with his faithful assistants and retired back to Manningtree where his infamous career had started. He published his book “The Discovery Of Witches” in May of that year, which was a rebuttal of the enquiries he had been subjected to in Norfolk.
It makes for interesting reading.
He died on August 11th. He wasn’t a nice man.